Church report on prisons to urge redemption not punishment
Catholic bishops are expected to warn this morning that overcrowding has stretched the prison system to breaking point, and that new approaches to criminal justice are needed.
In a report called A Place Of Redemption they are expected to describe prisons in England and Wales as becoming a "public disgrace".
The 115-page study is also expected to warn about the problem of corrupt or jaundiced prison staff.
The report follows criticism from other church leaders including the Archbishop of Canterbury who branded the government's penal policy "scandalous". Rowan Williams accused the three main political parties of "point scoring" in the debate on criminal justice.
Britain's first senior black bishop, the Bishop of Birmingham, has also called for new "restorative justice" approaches to crime and punishment, helping bring offenders and victims together to produce "truth and reconciliation".
The prison population in England and Wales reached a record high of 75,544 earlier this year which is almost double the 1991 figure.
Observers say it is likely to rise over the next decade to around 100,000 as magistrates and judges hand out tougher sentences in response to more prescriptive sentencing guidelines.
The report is likely to suggest several reforms - including ensuring prisoners have a full working day to help them acquire a work ethic or gain new skills for the outside world.
Better education for inmates, more money for drug treatment and better mental health care are also expected to be suggested.
Writing in today's Times newspaper, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster criticised the British penal system for being geared "to punishment rather than redemption".
"Every prison in England and Wales is visited at least once a week by chaplains, and by teams of volunteer visitors. What they report is a scandal of overcrowding, neglect and despair, he said."
Britain already has one of the highest ratios of prisoners to the general population in Western Europe. More people are being sent to prison, and for longer, than ever before. Two thirds of these reoffend within two years of release.
"Our prisons are failing both victims and offenders. We are all losers" said the Cardinal.
Talking about the new report, the Cardinal said; "We, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales, are raising our voices in response to this crisis. We do so not to criticise but to help our society to find new ways out of the disarray, failure and moral neglect of the prison system."
"What victims truly need is not only for the perpetrators of their misery to be caught and convicted but also for them to be reformed."
"Prison needs to be a place of moral awakening. A violent criminal is not, on the whole, one who turns to crime because he is poor and needs to care for his family: a person who cares that much about his family has too much empathy for others to be a violent criminal" he said.
"Most of us learn our moral behaviour from school and family, which reinforce respect for the police and the law; when school and family are defective, people lack that sensibility. The men and women currently in British prisons are extraordinarily disadvantaged and vulnerable individuals. They are thirteen times more likely than the rest of us to have been in care as a child; ten times more likely to have run away from school; ten times more likely to have been unemployed. Many, if not most, suffered abuse and neglect as children, and find it hard to love themselves ó and others ó as a result."
"The traditional four justifications for depriving people of liberty ó retribution, incapacitation, deterrence and reform ó are all vital, but none is absolute, and none is of itself sufficient. Punishment alone does not make society safer. Prisons without hope are merely storage pens."
"The Judaeo-Christian tradition insists that the primary aim of any penal system is to reform and restore. Justice, which is concerned with the right order of things, needs mercy to fulfil it, for it is mercy which leads both the individual and society towards redemption. The precondition of mercy is that the offender does not deserve any advantage; by his offence he has forfeited his rights, which is why he is in prison. But once there, he must be given the chance to rediscover his inner human dignity and beseech forgiveness. That chance can be accepted or refused. But it must be offered."
"The test for our prisons, therefore, is whether they enhance or diminish the opportunity for criminals to rediscover their inner human dignity. It is a test that they are failing badly" the Cardinal concluded.